Why Saudi Arabia’s Ukraine peace deal is unlikely to succeed

Taking it upon themselves to help end the bloodshed in Ukraine after futile mediatory efforts by Beijing and Ankara is a classic case of the Saudis letting their imagination run wild.

Being at the helm of a country that has long made the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman is going out of his way to transform the deeply conservative and opaque Kingdom into a global force for good.

Granted, a series of historic social reforms—namely allowing women to drive, greenlighting public entertainment amenities and doing away with the morality police— have come to pass under his watch. Furthermore, opening up the “birthplace of Islam” at breakneck speed as part of so-called Vision 2030 has further propelled the modernisation drive underway by roping in much needed know-how and foreign direct investment (FDI) from overseas. 

Nonetheless, too much must not be read into the upcoming Saudi-hosted Ukraine peace talks, a meeting in Jeddah of national security advisers and other senior officials from some 40 countries that takes place this weekend.

They are nothing more than a PR spectacle intended to add rocket fuel to the power trip Bin Salman has been on since mid-2017. It would be premature to assume that one of the biggest beneficiaries of the full-scale invasion has a vested interest in diffusing hostility between both warring sides.

Not only have energy prices gone through the roof amid Western-led restrictions on the purchase of Russian oil and gas, but Riyadh now pulls the strings in its “marriage of convenience” with the United States. The Biden Administration’s about-face vis-à-vis Bin Salman was largely brought on by the war-induced multipolar world order in which Saudi Arabia is no longer willing to bend the knee to Uncle Sam for security guarantees and intelligence sharing.

Having normalised ties with former adversaries Syria, Iran and Turkey since the conflict first broke out, there is far less paranoia on the part of the House of Saud regarding both regional and domestic stability.

The fact that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is set to be in attendace suggests that Washington might have had a hand in orchestrating this particular summit as a quid pro quo for much-awaited reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Should any kind of substantive breakthrough be reached at the event in Jeddah, it will hold the 37-year-old Prime Minister in good stead and help whitewash the reputational damage he single-handedly inflicted on the sheikhdom during his reign. In many ways, serving as a peacemaker is merely an extension of the Saudi government’s prisoner swap deal last September and nascent campaign to rehabilitate its image on the international arena.

Russia will not be present

Perhaps the biggest giveaway yet of these negotiations being unlikely to bear fruit is Moscow having opted out altogether. Although media outlets in the know hint at the Ukrainians refusing to sit across the table from a Russian delegation, this line of reasoning does not add up.

While emotions are understandably running high in Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet ministers realise that they have no choice but to bite the bullet and hold a tête-à-tête with the aggressor’s representatives for the sake of restoring normalcy.

If anything, stonewalling bilateral discussions serves the Kremlin’s purpose. For Putin, any settlement concerning the cessation of fighting and subsequent withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied territories must be established exclusively on his terms as opposed to via third-party intervention. This explains why China’s 12-point peace plan and the grain deal brokered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ultimately fell through.

The ailing ex-KGB colonel is already seen as damaged goods by his citizenry. Submitting to any agreements set forth by his opposite numbers does bode well for Putin and could be the final nail in the coffin for a despotic regime on borrowed time.

Moreover, walking away from the battlefield at this juncture with nothing to show in the way of concrete military achievements will lay bare his “de-nazification” ruse to invade Ukraine.

Saudi showcase

By virtue of its proximity to the Black Sea, Turkey has legitimate concerns about the current situation in Ukraine—as does China with Central and Eastern Europe being a critical node in its prized Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, the Saudis, who are far less politically-savvy operators than the Turks and Chinese, have no clear-cut agenda behind sticking their necks out for Ukraine. Even as far as food security is concerned, the wheels are already in motion to source grain and other essentials products from alternative markets like Central Asia.

Given that Brazil, India and South Africa are expected to feature amongst the thirty-odd participants in Jeddah, this summit offers Saudi Arabia an ideal platform to showcase its diplomatic finesse to BRICS members.

Riyadh has made no bones about its desire to join the alliance and will almost certainly be looking to fast-track its accession by scoring brownie points with the three aforementioned nations.

Unfortunately for Bin Salman, neither Russia nor Ukraine views him as a trustworthy middleman. Having a ruthless tyrant influencing the outcome of a war being fought to “defend democracy” defeats the purpose of what Ukrainian soldiers are shedding blood, sweat and tears for.

From weaponising hydrocarbons to using troll factories as a tool of statecraft and allegedly sanctioning extraterritorial assassinations on dissidents, there is no question that Putin and Bin Salman share plenty in common when it comes to their respective style of governance.

Nonetheless and despite being ideologically aligned, the aging Russian president is somewhat wary of propping up his Saudi counterpart and moulding him into a Prigozhin-like figure with an insatiable appetite for power.

MBS is already in the midst of turning the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a ‘USSR-lite’ bloc, with Saudi Arabia emerging as the locus of decision-making and regional business activity at the expense of its much smaller neighbours.

Controversies like the Ritz-Carlton purge six years ago which saw the crown prince lock up many of his immediate relatives under the guise of tackling corruption has not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin. Should such an unstable character who controls roughly 17 per cent of the world’s oil reserves wield enough autonomy over time beyond the confines of his jurisdiction, there is no telling who he might go after next.

With the Russian economy on a cliff’s edge and its sub-par, defection-prone armed forces humbled by Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has every reason to believe he is fair game in the eyes of the authoritarian nexus’ leader-in-waiting whose ambition knows no bounds.

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